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Montana a growing part of blossoming 'app economy,' Billings Fire Dept. signs on to use Billings-based Diamond B technology, Blackhawk! named 2017 manufacturer of the year, Audience Awards founder shares lessons learned and more

Montana a growing part of blossoming 'app economy,' Billings Fire Dept. signs on to use Billings-based Diamond B technology, Blackhawk! named 2017 manufacturer of the year, Audience Awards founder shares lessons learned and more

Montana a growing part of $950 billion ‘app economy,’ report says

The newly released sixth annual State of the App Economy report details the growth of an almost $1 trillion industry. And although Montana represents just a small slice of the industry’s $950 billion pie, the state’s app economy is blossoming. The annual report is aggregated by ACT The App Association, an industry organization that represents more than 5,000 app makers. In Montana, 3,700 individuals work on building and maintaining apps, a fraction of the state’s 525,000 person workforce. However, that number is set to grow more than 18 percent by 2024. In Montana, just 176 undergrad computer science degrees were awarded last year, fewer than the nearly 650 unfilled Montana computing jobs around the state. The report specifically highlights two Bozeman companies — Foundant Technologies and app developer Triple Tree LLC. Foundant, which has built a digital platform to make it easier for companies and individuals to apply for grants, was recently named a high-growth company — defined as having at least $2 million in annual revenue and 20 percent growth per year for three consecutive years. The report outlines continued challenges and opportunities, noting “though agriculture-heavy Montana ranks last among high schools offering AP computer science courses, and one in four Montanans do not have access to the internet, Bozeman has become an unexpected hub for tech and innovation - largely driven by local college graduates and Silicon Valley transplants.” Find the full report here. [Bozeman Chronicle]



Billings Fire Department signs up for chemical plume monitoring technology produced by Billings-based Diamond B Companies

The Billings Fire Department is the latest organization to sign on as an early adopter of a new system developed by Billings-based Diamond B Companies that pinpoints and tracks chemical plumes. Last summer, Diamond B Companies signed an exclusive licensing deal with the U.S. Army to commercially produce the Local-Rapid Evaluation of Atmospheric Conditions, or L-REAC. The system, designed by the U.S. Army Research Laboratory, uses 3-D modeling, sensors, real-time maps and cloud technology to pinpoint chemical plumes. "It's important technology for first responders," said Scott Roller, vice president at Diamond B. In the event of a fire (as Roller continues to detail his recent experience using the technology in West Fargo to help first responders), the technology will show where the smoke plume is headed, allowing public safety officials to warn residents in its path with exact precision. The research lab was awarded a patent for the technology last month. The company has also developed 3-D wind field modeling and is working to apply this model to wildfire prediction as a way to anticipate where a wildfire might burn and, pushed by the wind, how fast it may move. [Billings Gazette]



Manhattan-based Blackhawk! named the 2017 manufacturer of the year

The Montana Manufacturing Association named Manhattan-based Blackhawk! the 2017 Montana manufacturer of the year. The U.S. manufacturer of tactical, military, shooting sports and law enforcement equipment said they were honored to receive the award. Lamont Kotter, manager of factory operations, said, “We see it as a reflection of our commitment to improve our business and community. It’s those two purposes that we’re engaged in. We’re excited we were recognized for that.” The company (which is hiring for several Montana manufacturing jobs in Manhattan, Montana) was found in 1993 by a Navy Seal and has been in Montana since 2004. [Montana Chamber of Commerce]

Can Do: Giving Montana artists an opportunity to grow (featuring Audience Awards based in Missoula)

In a recent episode of Montana Public Radio’s Can Do: Lessons from Montana Savvy Entrepreneurs, Paige Williams, founder of Audience Awards, shares lessons learned from the launch of her Missoula-based company in 2013. Audience Awards is a platform to support short-format filmmakers honing their craft, specializing in connecting aspiring filmmakers with sponsors, festivals, brands and media outlets. According to Williams, "At the end of the day what we (at Audience Awards) are really doing is democratizing entertainment. We are giving everyone a chance to get discovered, and we are letting the global audience say: 'This is what we love.’" Tune in to learn more about how she got started, her journey, the benefits of creating an LLC, how to make an income with your art and how to connect from small-town Montana to the greater business world. [Montana Public Radio]



At MSU’s stadium, local photonics company Blackmore Sensors practices for the big game

In May, three employees of Bozeman-based Blackmore Sensors and Analytics Inc. will visit Puerto Rico’s Arecibo Observatory to create a 3-D model of the famed radio telescope, which may help Arecibo’s managers calibrate the telescope in the wake of a recent hurricane. In preparation for the Blackmore team’s assignment, they headed to Bobcat Stadium at Montana State University earlier this month to practice its latest photonics technology on something resembling the giant radio dish at the observatory in Puerto Rico and work out any quirks in the software. “It’s the most dish-like thing we could find,” said Stephen Crouch of Blackmore Sensors and Analytics Inc. Blackmore’s binocular-like device swiveled on a tripod at the stadium’s 50-yard line, scanning the empty stands with a camera and a harmless laser — called a lidar sensor. The beams of invisible light from the sensor measured the distance to each point on the structure. Besides creating precise 3-D models of huge objects like the Arecibo telescope, the lidar scanner can find a variety of other applications, Crouch said. For instance, in large mines it could be used to detect early signs of collapsing walls, so that workers and equipment could be moved to safety. The location for the practice of its photonics technology also seemed fitting due to the strong ties between the company and university. Most of Blackmore’s 20 interns during the past two years have been MSU students. And today, nearly half of the company’s roughly 50 employees are MSU alumni (and the company is currently hiring). According to Joe Shaw, director of MSU’s Optical Technology Center and professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering in MSU’s Norm Asbjornson College of Engineering, “It’s exciting to see what’s happening at Blackmore. They’re stepping into a market that’s developing really rapidly [and] definitely pioneering a new path for the photonics industry here.” [Montana State University]

Real estate developer to take on old Northwestern Energy building in Butte

Butte-Silver Bow County commissioners have tapped a real estate development firm, Wishrock, to repurpose the old, empty NorthWestern Energy complex in Uptown Butte. Wishrock, which has offices in Missoula and Portland, Maine, says it will split utility and security costs for the building with Butte-Silver Bow County for a year while trying to find commercial and residential tenants. It says it already has a brewery and restaurant interested in becoming anchor tenants, and its plans included an overhaul of the building’s 1960s façade. [Montana Standard]

The next 18 months will make or break the One Big Sky vision for Billings

One Big Sky district strategic partners — Big Sky Economic Development, Billings Chamber of Commerce, Downtown Billings Partnership, City of Billings and the Tourism Business Improvement District — recently cited the reasons they have agreed to work in depth with consultants over the next 18 months to articulate an economic development plan for downtown Billings and the city’s hospital and higher education corridors. According to Big Sky Economic Development’s executive director Steve Arveschoug, the one reason the for this in-depth work is to attract and retain the number of workers needed to replace the 20,000 people expected to retire in the next decade, together with the 8,000 or so additional workers who will join the city’s growing workforce during that time. The second, Arveschoug continued, is that private investment follows public expenditures. “The private sector needs to know the community is investing in itself,” he said. And third, is taking a revised outlook on the “slow and steady wins the race approach.” According to Arveschoug, “Our strong economic foundation is important, but we need to talk about accelerating that growth.” On May 14, the Billings City Council is scheduled to vote on a development agreement that includes Hammes Company, doing business in Montana as Landmark LLC, and the strategic partners. That will be the starting gun for the takeoff of the study, which is expected to take up to 18 months. In the end, if developers aren’t interested in investing in the One Big Sky district, civic and business leaders will at least have an updated downtown development master plan upon completion of the study. [Billings Gazette]

Bozeman airport announces JetBlue flight to California

Officials from Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport announced this week that the airport will offer nonstop seasonal flights from Bozeman to Long Beach Airport courtesy of JetBlue beginning in December. With the new agreement, JetBlue becomes the seventh airline operating out of the Bozeman airport. The Long Beach flight will be the airport’s 16th nonstop route. [Bozeman Chronicle]



Outdoor recreation driving population boom in rural areas, featuring growing Flathead County

While many rural counties have been shrinking for years, others towns with strong outdoor recreational industries (such as hiking in the mountains or year-round golfing) have been growing rapidly. These populations are growing as it becomes easier to work remote and as more people retire and move away from the city. The trend is part of what drove the overall slight growth of the rural population in the United States from 2016 to 2017, for the first time since 2010. Flathead County is a prime example of this growing rural county trend. Flathead County first hit 100,000 residents last year, after growing by about 10 percent since 2010, according to U.S. census estimates. It’s the state’s second-fastest growing county, after Gallatin County, home of Montana State University in Bozeman, and one of the fastest-growing rural counties with populations over 25,000 in the United States. The county is about the same size in square miles as Connecticut, with about 3 percent as many people. For those less familiar with the area, residents are clustered in several small towns that are just miles apart - tourist towns Bigfork and Whitefish, as well as Kalispell, which accounts for a quarter of the county’s population. The growth in Flathead County, and in other recreation counties, follows the “people first, jobs follow” model, said Bryce Ward, an economist at the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of Montana. Retirees, professionals, telecommuters and entrepreneurs are some of the groups that are driving the growth, Ward said. There was a 29 percent increase in Montana jobs in Flathead County from 2000 to 2015, according to Headwaters Economics. And with growth, also comes challenges to address and work on (e.g. affordable housing shortages, elementary school overflow). [The Pew Charitable Trusts]

Governor Bullock sends opportunity zone nominations to U.S. Treasury

Governor Steve Bullock has nominated 25 areas of Montana for designation as an Opportunity Zone, after communities submitted more than 60 proposals for consideration. What’s an Opportunity Zone you say? Well, the federal Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 established a new economic development program called Opportunity Zones. Regulations as to how the program functions exactly haven’t yet been released by the U.S. Treasury, but the program is “designed to encourage long-term private investment in low-income communities and provides a federal tax incentive for taxpayers who reinvest unrealized capital gains into “Opportunity Funds,” which are specialized investment vehicles dedicated to specific low-income areas called ‘Opportunity Zones.’” According to Governor Bullock, “We asked cities, towns, counties, tribes, and economic development organizations to nominate areas that are most likely to realize development which benefits communities. “I’m confident that the final zones I’ve nominated to the U.S. Treasury Department represent both high-needs communities and areas that are ripe for investment in rural and urban corners of our state.” For example, Missoula is eyeing the “opportunity zone” investments to redevelop the West Broadway corridor with housing and retail development [Missoula Current] and Billings to redevelop the hospital corridor and as part of upcoming planning around the One Big Sky District project. [Billings Gazette]. This financing tool has the potential to “direct private capital toward distressed communities and serve as a catalyst for long-term, inclusive economic development” - with potential to include downtown revitalization, workforce development, affordable housing, infrastructure, and business startup and expansion. Find the complete list of the 25 Montana areas nominated and submitted by the Governor here. [Montana Office of Tourism and Business Development]



Airport expedites terminal project to tap federal funding; approves engineering contract

Funding included in the federal spending bill has prompted Missoula International Airport to expedite its plans to construct a new passenger terminal, with several phases of the project expected to go to bid this summer. The project could include a new airport access road, demolition of the current terminal’s security wing and a terminal project to create eight aircraft gates in two concourses (over the next several years). While the project doesn’t have an overall price tag just yet, the airport currently has $11.5 million on hand, and is looking to receive the full amount authorized in the spending bill. To formalize some of the funding, the Missoula County Airport Authority approved a resolution this week to enact a “passenger facility charge” to raise roughly $37 million for the terminal project, approximately $4.50 per ticket. Additionally, the airport authority approved a $4.3 million engineering agreement with Morrison-Maierle (hiring) to finish several phases of design for the terminal and authorized a $97,000 pre-construction agreement with Martel Construction. [Missoula Current]